This is the first in a series on doctoral qualifying exams! Over the next few months we will be rolling out more posts with suggestions for reading lists and more advice. Let’s get started with some thoughts on how to prepare for this beast!
Surviving the Qualifying Exam, Part I: Getting Started
Disclaimer: This is the first part of a three-part series on preparing for and taking the qualifying exam component of a doctoral degree program, also sometimes called the “comprehensive exam,” “oral exam,” or “preliminary exam(s).” After taking my exam in January of 2018 I decided to write down some thoughts from my experience and what I wish I’d known earlier in this process. My experience is based on the exam requirements for Yale University’s History of Science and Medicine program, which consists of one two-hour oral exam, with four professors, each testing one exam field. Keep in mind that other programs have different formats and requirements.
Ah, the qualifying exam. If you’re in a doctoral program that has them, it can be the most terrifying part of your Ph.D. experience (or maybe that’s interacting with your advisor. If that’s the case, my sympathies). Partly, this is because every academic program does exams differently – and every student’s process of preparing for them is different – so it can be difficult to generalize about how to study for them, in a way comparable to exams in other professional fields. Even within my own program, each of my colleague’s paths towards the exam was slightly different.
When I was preparing for my exams, I benefitted greatly from the advice of my colleagues in my own program and in other departments at my university, and friends and family members who’d survived qualifying exams in their Ph.D. programs (even those who had done their degrees in the 1970s had helpful tips to offer!) I also drew on the advice of former graduate students who were generous enough to record their experiences and make them available online, including Cameron Blevins , Jonathan Dettmann and Zachary Schrag .
I am a student in Yale University’s Program in History of Science and Medicine, which is a semi-autonomous division of the History department. Our examination (which is structured differently from the other History Ph.D. students) is completely oral, and consists of one, two-hour long exam, with four examiners, each who have exactly thirty minutes to ask questions. My four exam fields covered History of British and American Anthropology, 1850-1950; Native American history, 1800-Present; American Material Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century; and something I called “Knowing the World in the West, 1700-Present,” which was an amalgam of history of exploration and geography, history of field science, and history of maps and cartography.
Understand the purpose of the exam:
This is harder than it sounds. Over the last few years I’ve been told that the purpose of the exam was to a) prepare graduate students to teach classes to undergraduates in their exam fields; b) allow students to master the current literature in their exam fields, to serve as preparation for writing their dissertations; c) convince other academics that a graduate student can “talk the talk” and be a credible future colleague; and d) force the graduate student to go through the same hazing ritual rite of passage that the examiners went through when they were students.
Personally, I’m skeptical of the first two explanations. You don’t receive any kind of teaching certification when you complete the exam, and while it’s certainly great if you can create examination fields that will help your dissertation work later on, I’ve spoken to few graduate students whose dissertation topic aligned neatly with their exam fields. Frankly I think the latter two explanations are the most likely, especially explanation c).
One of the professors in my program put it this way: years from now, you’ll apply for a tenure-track job at the University of XYZ and be invited to give a job talk on campus, in front of XYZ’s faculty and students. After your talk, coffee will be served, and the chair of the department you’re applying to join will sidle up next to you and ask you what you think of Professor So-and-So’s recent article in Preeminent Journal of Your Field. Ideally, you’ll quickly think back to all of the literature you reviewed for your exam years before, and reply with your opinion of the article: how it builds on Professor Whatshisname’s argument, but that it reiterates an argument already made in Classic Book in Your Field, and that you find the work of Professor Whoever much more stimulating. The chair will be suitably impressed, and will think you are qualified to join their department.
I found this hypothetical scenario to be a useful way to think about the tone you’ll want to strike in response to your exam questions. Your goal is to be familiar with the literature of your fields and be able to recall key scholars, titles, and arguments, but to connect the dots with relatively broad strokes. You’ll need to synthesize, not provide a chapter-by-chapter summary of every book or remember the footnote on page 37.
Take good notes:
From your first semester in graduate school, take good notes on the books you read. Not only is this generally a good idea, it will help you tremendously if any of those books end up on your exam lists a year or two later. I did not do this well enough, and found that there were at least a dozen books on my lists that I essentially had to re-read. If I had been on my game earlier, I could have just reviewed the notes I made when I read them the first time.
Find out all the details:
Find out as much as you can about the actual structure of the exam. Some programs have three fields, some have four (one humanities department at my university has five). Some programs weight one field more heavily than others. Some exams include a written component, and some are entirely oral. In some programs, you’ll be required to submit an official form at the beginning of the semester you’re planning to take your exams in. Will you need to book a room for the exam yourself, or can your department’s administrative assistant help with this? The more you can find out, the more secure you will feel.
For example, until fairly close to my exam I didn’t know that I could choose the order in which my examiners would ask questions. If you are allowed to pick the order for your exam, I recommend starting with the professor you expect to ask the most specific questions and moving towards the professor you expect to ask the broadest questions. That way, you have a bit more wiggle room with your responses during the last quarter of the exam, when your brain is already fried.
Start talking to faculty and putting your lists together:
Think about who you want to be on your examination committee and start talking to them about taking on this role. You’ll want to do this as early as possible. Over summers and interterm breaks, faculty may be slower in responding to emails. They may have plans to go on sabbatical or family leave. Ask how they want you to put your lists together. For me, after talking to each professor in person, I began with a draft of a list, sent it to the professor, and waited for feedback. Then I would revise and repeat until the list was finalized. Some professors prefer to give you their recommendations for books up front, while other would prefer that you do more legwork, and then they tweak as necessary. How to find the books that will form your lists? Look at sample online lists, ask your more advanced colleagues if they would be willing to share theirs, mine old syllabi, scour the footnotes of important books and articles in your field.
Ask your professors how long your lists need to be. Each of mine included about 40-45 books, plus anywhere from 10-30 articles and individual chapters from edited volumes. Ask about the role of primary sources on your lists. In my program, the stated purpose of the exam was to master secondary literature, but I did have a few primary sources on my lists: for example, Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis appeared on both my Native American history list and my history of exploration and geography list. Speaking of which, most faculty will not mind having a few books that overlap between your lists. Not only will this save you some time, it will allow you to make theoretical connections between the bodies of literature that each of your lists represents.
Be aware that you may have a professor on your committee who likes to make changes to your list up until the last moment – don’t panic! Leave extra time at the end to tackle last-minute additions.
Start talking to your colleagues:
All of the colleagues I spoke to who had already been through the exam process were generous enough to share their lists with me, as well as offer lots of helpful advice about how to study. Try to find other students who have taken exams with the same professors who are on your exam committee. What kinds of questions do these professors tend to ask? Do they prefer you to give long, multi-pronged answers, or short, concise ones? Is there a particular book they always ask about?
Also, be reassured by the fact that your more advanced colleagues passed their exams, and you will too! If you and other members of your cohort are taking your exams in the same year or same semester, you might think about setting up a study group to share notes and quiz each other.
Figure out your timeline:
This goes along with getting all of the details in order and confirming your examiners. Ask your department’s administrative assistant what the technical requirements are for fulfilling the exam: do you have to take it in a certain year or certain semester? Then, pick a hypothetical, general exam date (say, early December, or end of spring semester) and work backwards. You should allow at least 4-5 months minimum for doing the reading for the exam, plus a few weeks at the end just for review and synthesis. This does not include the time you’ll spend beforehand, potentially months, developing your lists and finalizing them with each professor! Once you have this rough timeline in order, schedule some interim meetings with each professor. Ideally, plan to meet with each one once a month to review your progress and practice answering questions. Of course, it’s easier to schedule consistent time with some professors than others. At the very least, you should have one meeting with each professor before the exam date to do a “mock exam” and run through practice questions.
More thoughts on scheduling: consider scheduling your exams for the beginning of September (so you have the entire summer to prepare) or for mid- or late January (so you have your winter holiday vacation to prepare). Of course, this means you will spend your vacation periods working intensely, but you will also likely have to contend with fewer interruptions and distractions than you would while classes are in session. Some graduate students I spoke to did their exams at the beginning of December, so that they could spend all of the winter holiday vacation relaxing and basking in their success. While this is a great strategy be aware that it can be difficult to schedule an exam time during early December, when professors are extra-busy supervising undergraduates’ final exams and term papers (more on this in a later section).
Don’t freak out:
You will anyway, though. Just try not to do it too much, especially at this stage.